Not Even Close To The News, by Mike Gold
I did a column a couple weeks ago about the wacky New York Post, spurring a comment from Vinnie Bartilucci about how the rag is merely a return to the glory days of yellow journalism. There’s a lot of truth to that, and I was reminded of statements by the brilliant columnist Jimmy Breslin. He persistently advocates on behalf of the entertainment value of the medium and recently told New York magazine “newspapers are so boring. How can you read a newspaper that starts with a 51-word lead sentence? They’re trying to prove they went to college.”
My first journalism teacher got his start in Chicago’s The Front Page days, and he dazzled me. Here’s a guy who, when he was roughly the age I was at the time, ran with the likes of Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur. He worked for William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago American, a paper so yellow they actually printed the front page flat on yellow newsprint – hence the name. He worked in the fabled Madhouse on Madison Street, a building across from the Chicago Civic Opera house (of Citizen Kane fame) that was so ugly that when Hearst saw it, he refused to walk in. Editors would routinely call the wives of murder victims posing as policemen asking the immediately-widowed that she gather a few really “interesting” photos of the deceased for a “detective” who would be showing up at the front door within a few minutes. Within an hour or two, those photos would be on the front page.
I loved that stuff. By the time I was reading newspapers, Hearst died, the American had been sold to the staid Chicago Tribune, and the Madhouse on Madison Street became a commercial office building with a slightly less tacky new façade. Ironically, Hearst’s Midwest advertising sales offices remained headquartered in the facility.
But Hearst and Hecht and MacArthur, and their New York counterparts like Walter Winchell and the amazing Damon Runyon, had nothing on Bernarr Macfaddon. For one thing, back before the Great Depression, Macfaddon invented Photoshop.
Known as the father of physical culture for his advocacy of health and body-building, he was the publisher of such magazines as Physical Culture, True Story, True Detective, Photoplay, and a great many newspapers. Even though at least one lives on (the Philadelphia Daily News), his best-known and most notorious was the New York Evening Graphic.
Often credited with being America’s first tabloid – this might even be true – the Graphic put the sleeze in sleezy. It was only published for eight years, 1924 to 1932, and during that time it managed to lose over $10 million. In those days, that was a lot of money. But during that time the paper brought lurid tales of sex and murder into the living rooms of over 100,000 New Yorkers each day.
His talent pool included columnists such as Ed Sullivan, who later went to the New York Daily News, and Walter Winchell, who later went to the New York Mirror. But the best-known feature was the “composograph.” This device allowed – by way of example – the Graphic to get a photo of Caruso meeting Valentino in heaven. They would re-create the news events of the day (I’d hate to use the word “lurid” twice in consecutive paragraphs) by staging, cutting and pasting a several-panel narrative. I guess it’s possible that Macfaddon thereby invented the “fumetti,” the comic book story told in photographs
Now, those of us with Photoshop do this sort of thing all the time; just check out any Dick Cheney website. But in those days composographs were extremely convincing… and entirely bullshit.
When it comes to Macfaddon, I didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s an exhaustive website all about him; check it out.
So Vinnie’s right. The New York Post is merely following the footsteps of a giant. And a very healthy giant at that.
ComicMix editor-in-chief Mike Gold would like to point out that the painting of Barnarr Macfaddon (above) was by James Montgomery Flagg, of “I Want YOU For The U.S. Army” fame. Graphic graphics courtesy of http://www.bernarrmacfadden.com/